The Myth Of The Helpless Medieval Jew

One of the many, many things that “everybody knows” but that is nevertheless not entirely true, is that in the Middle Ages, Jews were prohibited from owning land, holding office and bearing arms. The most spectacular exception, and hence disproof of the thesis as a universal truth, is Spain at the time of the Cid and for a while afterwards. There, charters explicitly give Jews agricultural property. Not only did Jews serve as ambassadors between Christian and Muslim kings, they also served both sides as viziers and ministers. There is even talk in the sources of Jewish military contingents; after all, in Spain, both defensive and offensive armies were mostly urban militias. For example, during the courtesies preceding the battle of Zalaqa in 1086, the two sides discussed whether to abstain from fighting on Friday for the sake of the Muslims, Sunday for the sake of the Christians or Saturday for the sake of the numerous Jews in the Christian army. The battle was therefore scheduled for Monday.

At the same time in Germany, it is true, Jews were forbidden to bear arms. The implication that this was some special institution of anti-Semitic oppression, however, needs to be qualified. German Jews were forbidden arms on the same basis as German priests were forbidden arms, because they were under explicit royal protection. A question we need to ask in such cases is, “How could it be otherwise?” If you have a system that says that Individual Type X is not to be assaulted, on pain of acute government displeasure, then you cannot at the same time allow Individual Type X to bear arms, because that would be to give him a unique licence to initiate violence with impunity. Why, it would be like enacting that a gentleman may not strike a lady, while at the same time failing to enact that if she hits him first she is no lady. Who would be stupid enough to accept such an ordinance?

Manuscript illustrations from the period show that both prohibitions were in fact ignored; they show both Jews being attacked and Jews with swords fighting back. Such a gap between theory and practice is only to be expected; and probably both the Jews and their enemies felt that the other side was breaking the rules first. What we ought not to do, however, is to put the disarmament law and the failures of royal protection together, while ignoring evidence of Jewish self-defence, and so concluding that the German Jews were utterly at the mercy of their gentile neighbours. Nor should we back-project subsequent Jewish meekness, real or alleged, to the eleventh century; my impression from the sources is rather that of self-confidence to the point of pugnacity. This is not disproved by the fact that the Rhineland Jews, whether fighting or hiding, were devastated by the 1096 massacres, because what they were up against there was not quotidian medieval violence but a whole army.

Posted on May 16, 2011 at 10:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Jews, Cathars, Gays And Witches

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